Electricity & Lust

Review: My Kid Could Paint That

Posted in film, Movies, review, Sam by Sam Unsted on March 30, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That
Dir: Amir Bar-Lev
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Modern art has long been considered a difficult art form, not because of its generational confrontations but also because its purpose is less clear, its aims and philosophies are further towards an abstraction. Modern art’s value is in the interpretation of the piece and the explanation for its existence and the simplicity of the designs on a technical level often produce reactions of disbelief from those outside the art world and distaste from those inside. Having been to some strong art museums in the past and explored the modern spaces, it is not hard to see why. Some of the works used as example in the documentary purposefully engage with this problem. How is it that a piece on which depicts a large shaded colour on a white background can sell for upwards of $20m? Surely, when you study the lack of artistic sophistication in the piece, notably with regards to another protagonist/antagonist of the film who works in a photo-realist spectrum, it could easily be surmised that ‘my kid could paint that’.

Apologies for using such a wrap-up introduction to the documentary but here lies the wider conceit of this personal little work. My Kid Could Paint That follows the work of Marla Olmstead, a truly charming four-year-old girl from New York State whose work became the toast of the art world before a 60 Minutes on her, and her artist father and sceptical mother, questioned the authenticity of the art after witnessing Marla create a far less polished and somewhat undesirable work for its camera. This is backed up and explored in the documentary by the constant occurrence that Marla will only paint these masterworks when its only her parents filming her. Father Mark delivers a selection of excuses (shyness, playfulness, contrariness) for this happening but the nagging doubt remains for the whole film. Even when she finally completes a lovely piece on camera, doubts remain given that it’s her mother that films it. The piece, titled ‘Ocean’, also lacks the polished edge of her earlier works. Is she just evolving as an artist or is she no longer receiving the help?

Discussing this central issue to the film, you are left with the dichotomy between the two sides of the film: the personal and the wider socio-artistic question. Why is this work, if the young artists cannot imprint her own wider meanings to the pieces, considered to be a work of modern artistic genius? Does this acceptance itself suggest a leaning within the modern art community towards a sense of quality in the work rather than the explanation for its existence? This is challenged when you begin to hear the creators explaining their love for the work – its depiction of the unharmed innocence of a child-like mind – you start to see the meaning of the work begin to be imprinted, in some way losing that innocence. There is even a deeply disturbing monologue from Anthony Brunelli, the local gallery owner and key distributor of her work, when he essentially says he used Marla to prove a point in an art world where he couldn’t understand the value of modern art and the amount of money other got for their work in comparison to his hyper-realist pieces. This question the film poses also seem pertinent and ever more so as Marla waltzes into the New York scene and doubles the average asking prices for modern art work. Why is this work so valuable, why are certain pieces of modern art so valuable? Questions begin to be raised on the entire modern art industry as Marla’s asking prices rise. The question again though arises as to whether quality is the key when, following the doubting voice of 60 Minutes, Marla’s sales dive.

The problem here then, and the reason this work isn’t quite as wonderful as it could be, is that it seems stuck between these two aims. My Kid Could Paint That seems to consider itself a slice of quirky Americana, trying more to expose a sinister undertone to the family life of the Olmsteads rather than exploring any of these wider issues. It also fails to pose any tangible answers to the questions it poses, rather shirking its journalistic responsibility when the family becomes upset at the constant questioning. It’s understandable that they would, but further questioning of the earlier paintings and whether Mark helped her in any way he hadn’t previously disclosed would have put to rest any remaining doubts over the authenticity of the paintings. But the close sees Bar-Lev leave the questions unanswered and rather than allow the film to provoke any serious debate about modern art and its pretensions, any debate is underpinned by the fact that we simply do not know if Marla is a talented artists or a pawn in her father’s attempt to win recognition.


2 Responses

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  1. steveamsden said, on November 14, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I saw the documentay on Marla and have since found out as much about her painting as I could and am now a true fan! Her work is simple but powerful.
    She has a youtube presentation and I found an ad for her art in the magazine “American Art Collector”. As an artist I couldn’t stop myself from using her technique, much like Pollock’s, and I love it. Painting that way is a joy – what fun! Thanks Marla. May you have a full life of art

    Steve Amsden

  2. russell rankin said, on January 26, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Anything painted anywhere can be called art, so the question becomes, what is “fine art”. I once saw an interview with Kathrine Hepburn wherein the interviewer called her a genius. She answered that genius was a term that was overly used and that Shirly Temple had done some magnificent acting when she was four and she could hardly be considered a genius. If that is so, one might agree with Marcel Duchamp, ” it’s art because I say it is.”
    In the end I agree with the lady who bought a painting towards the end of the film. She liked it because one shape in the painting looked like Mickey Mouse ears. Good observation, by all means buy it.

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